Tay Garnett: From Pratfalls to “Postman”

The name of director/ screenwriter/ producer William Taylor “Tay” Garnett (1894-1977) ought to be at least as recognized as some of his better known films, like The Postman Always Rings Twice (1947) and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1949), don’t you think? Be that as it may, our special interest in him lies in the fact that, much like several of his better known peers (Frank Capra, George Stevens, Leo McCarey, etc) Garnett got his start in comedy shorts.

A circus acrobat and cartoonist in his youth, Garnett attended MIT and served as a naval aviator in World War One, as good a background as any for writing intertitles and gags in silent comedies for Mack Sennett and Hal Roach. His first was The Quack Doctor (1920) with Billy Bevan, Louise Fazenda and Billy Armstrong, for which he wrote the scenario. His subsequent silent comedy credits as a writer include The Uncovered Wagon (1923) with James Parrott; Galloping Bungalows (1924) with Bevan; Don’t Park There (1924) with Will Rogers; Off His Trolley (1924), The Plumber (1925) and The Funnymooners (1926) with Ralph GravesStan Laurel’s A Mandarin Mix-Up, Detained, West of Hot Dog (all 1924), and Honeymoon Hardships, Somewhere in WrongTwinsPie-EyedThe Snow HawkNavy Blue DaysHold Tight, The Sleuth, Half a Man, and Dr. Pyckle and Mr. Pryde (all 1925); the Tons of Fun comedies Three Wise Goofs and On the Links (both 1925) and A Beauty Parlor (1926); Salute (1925) for Billy Franey; Who’s Your Friend (1925) for Jimmy Aubrey and Francis X Bushman Jr; That’s My Baby (1926) for Douglas MacLean; Puppy Lovetime (1926) for Eddie Quillan and Alice Day; Up in Mabel’s Room (1926) with Marie Prevost, Harrison Ford, and Phyllis Haver; Harry Langdon’s The Strong Man (1926) and Long Pants (1927); Smith’s Visitor (1926), with Raymond McKee; There You Are (1926) with Conrad Nagel; The Cruise of the Jasper B (1926) with Mildred Harris; Rubber Tires (1927) with Bessie Love; Getting Gertie’s Garter (1927) with Prevost, Harry Myers and Sally Rand; No Control (1927) with Ford, Haver and Jack Duffy, and The Wise Wife (1927) with Haver,

Meanwhile he had also begun to direct. Early on he directed three comedy shorts starring the short-lived team of Earl Mohan and Billy Engle: Fast Black (1924), Riders of the Kitchen Range (1925), and All Wool (1925). In 1928, his focus changed to directing (and in all genres, not just comedy), although he would always keep a hand in screenwriting, contributing to his own pictures as well as those of others. Celebrity (1928) with Robert Armstrong, Clyde Cook, Lina Basquette, and Dot Farley, was his first feature as director, swiftly followed by The Spieler (1928) with Alan Hale, Clyde Cook and Renée Adorée; and The Flying Fool (1929) which drew on his aviation experience. In 1929 he married the first of his three wives, Patsy Ruth Miller. 

Garnett directed some 40 more features through the mid ’50s, at which point he jumped over to television, where he was a prolific director for another decade or so. After 1966, his output slowed considerably, although he did write and direct the action thriller The Delta Factor (1970) and then made two movies in Alaska in 1975: Challenge to be Free and The Timber Tramps. He was 81 years old at the time! That’s a man who likes to be up and doing!

For more on silent film comedy, please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.